Onward, Fluffy Soldiers

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1997

Onward, Fluffy Soldiers

Getting down and dirty with Swampy and his mates in an untidy but very British war
By Bruce Schoenfeld

At the edge of a rolling meadow in England's Bollin Valley, on a bright June day under clearing skies, a platoon of commandos in black hooded uniforms is massing near a Porta-John for its final assault. From where I stand, in a fenced-off enclosure in the middle of the meadow, I can make out a remnant of the besieged enemy forces: a group of a dozen or so scraggly figures sitting on a wooden platform near the top of a tall Scotch pine 100 yards away. The tree-dwellers are among the last of the stubborn protesters occupying this site, and the Men in Black — as the commandos have been dubbed by reporters — are getting ready to pry them out and cart them off to jail. A local newspaperman beside me peers at the tree through binoculars and reports that one of the protesters has secured her position by cementing an arm inside an oil drum. This is great stuff, he explains, the best newsprint fodder since a teenage tree-sitter named Carl nailed himself halfway up another tree by his ear a week ago.

Every few minutes a jet roars overhead, reminding us why we are here. The British government wants to spend $285 million to flatten the stately old trees and verdant hollows of the Bollin Valley and build a second runway for Manchester International Airport. And for several months now, a loosely organized army of protesters has sought to thwart the coming macadam, mostly by placing their own bodies in the way. The activists belong to a nonviolent subversive movement called Direct Action — as opposed to the indirect action of letter-writing, ad campaigns, and the ballot box. ("We tried all that first," Jeff Gazzard, a former marketing executive who handles public relations for the movement, told me, "and it didn't work.") Some 500 British citizens, from hippies and students to doctors and lawyers, have visited the scene to lend a hand to the hard-core protesters, digging tunnels and building elaborate tree-house platforms. They have given the tunnels and tree houses whimsical, media-friendly names, such as Cakehole, Sir Paul McCartney's Cavern, and Battlestar Galactica. The hope, of course, is that workers won't dare cut down trees with people living in them and won't risk sending heavy equipment rumbling over weakened earth, possibly smothering subterranean environmentalists. In a sense, it's worked. The laborious process of plucking the squatters from their nests, one by one, has delayed the start of construction work for weeks, and paying for the large force of police and security officers at the site will add more than $6.5 million to the cost of the project. Nearly 200 people have been arrested, and even after the trees have been depopulated there will still be the problem of the seven or eight tunnelers who remain underground.

The protesters know they can't save the centuries-old woodland of the Bollin Valley, but they have a more ambitious goal: to stop the systematic paving of an England that isn't nearly as green and pleasant as it used to be. In 1992 the same tactics, as deployed by many of the same activists, delayed the progress of a road extension that sliced through scenic Twyford Down, not far from Winchester. In 1994 the movement temporarily blocked a new link of the M11 freeway outside London, and in 1996 more than 700 people were arrested while trying to halt a motorway bypass at Newbury in Berkshire. Yes, all these new roads were ultimately built, but the protesters insist that the tide is turning in their favor. And there is at least some evidence that they're right.

Oddly enough, even though Direct Action is regularly and vociferously accused of stealing money from ordinary British taxpayers (who ultimately have to foot the bill not only for the cost overruns but also for the welfare checks that many of the protesters use to subsidize their civil disobedience), the movement has provoked little public ire. In fact, lots of otherwise well-starched Englishmen have lately become rather fond of the colorful anti-roads guerrillas, with their casual hygiene and alternative hairstyles and daft idealism. One of the protesters, a 23-year-old former toy-shop clerk named Swampy, has even become a popular hero of sorts.

Last January, Swampy was just one of several hundred muddy, hirsute activists who were attempting to block the path of the A30, a new highway outside Exeter. But Swampy, a seasoned veteran of earlier protests, captured the nation's imagination by fending off police tunnelers and holding out for seven days deep inside Big Mama, an elaborate underground warren constructed by the A30 protesters. When this human mole finally emerged from Big Mama, shaking soil from his dreadlocks and blinking at the TV lights as his captors led him away, a star was born.

Swampy — his real name is Daniel Hooper, and he had a middle-class upbringing in High Wycombe, Bucks — comes across as something akin to an English Kato Kaelin, with the same benign and slightly clueless demeanor and a similar dearth of eloquence. That didn't stop the tabloid Sunday Mirror from hiring him to write a weekly column or the current-affairs comedy quiz show Have I Got News for You from having him on as a guest panelist. (He failed to answer a single question correctly, but viewers graciously attributed his distracted air to the fact that he had spent much of the previous week literally under a rock.) He was profiled in several slick magazines — "At Home with Swampy," in Sky, included exclusive details about his dog, Bandanna — and posed on the front page of the Daily Express in an Armani suit. This spring, before the general election, he declared his intention to run for Parliament in North Manchester against the chairman of the airport board. "I shall take time from tunneling to canvass in Blackley, provided I'm not in prison," he said, holding up a banner reading dig for victory. The press went for the story, only to learn the next day that Swampy's electoral announcement was an April Fools' prank.

By late May, when the battle for the Bollin Valley began to heat up, there were signs of an anti-Swampy backlash. Some of the other protesters, annoyed that Swampy's activities were so lavishly documented while they toiled anonymously, groused that he had become a "media tart." Still, he gamely turned up to protest the Manchester airport expansion, took his turn digging in a tunnel at the Sir Cliff Richard OBE Vegan Revolution Camp, and was arrested and charged with criminal damage to a security fence and marijuana possession. By early June, Swampy had apparently had enough of public acclaim, and he was variously rumored to have slipped back into the ranks at the A30 protest or to be hiding out in Glastonbury or possibly in Wales.

But Swampy had already succeeded in putting a lovable and dirt-smudged face on the movement for the world at large. Protesters are now routinely referred to as "Swampy and his mates." To stay underground for more than a day or two, several activists told me, is now known as "doing a Swampy," and as the Men in Black begin to move in at the Manchester site, several would-be Swampys are vowing to resist eviction and to break his weeklong record.

The roots of the anti-roads movement in England are either deep or shallow, depending on how sentimental one chooses to be about its origins. The activists are fond of comparing themselves to the early Britons who fought against the occupying Romans, and some call themselves the New Levellers, in honor of the peasant uprising against land enclosures in 1649. But most hark back to 1989, when the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced an ambitious $36 billion highway program that it said would rival the road-building achievements of the Roman Empire. Per capita car ownership in the United Kingdom was still among the lowest in Europe, but automobile use was skyrocketing, and only Italy's roads were more congested. England, which came late to car culture, had been sprouting suburbs, and traffic in most urban areas was increasingly awful. A crash program of paving and a firm resolve to become more like Americans were offered up as the only solutions. "We are not going to do without a great car economy," Thatcher grandly declared.

Because British law provided for public debate about where to put a road but not whether one was actually needed, the highway juggernaut seemed unstoppable. Wildlife restrictions and other protective designations could keep land pristine only as long as there was no compelling economic argument for putting a road or other project there. In fact, rural stretches of so-called protected land were precisely the ones government planners tended to recommend for road projects, because no homes or businesses would have to be relocated. Most important, they were cheap.

By 1992, the year the Direct Action movement started, Thatcher had been replaced by the faceless John Major. Perhaps emboldened by his middle-manager blandness, a group of environmentalists, students, itinerants, and even the odd politician gathered on a hill near Winchester where a picturesque chalk escarpment on Twyford Down was to be razed for a section of M3 highway. They formed human barricades, chained themselves to heavy machinery, and sang William Blake's "Jerusalem." The protesters didn't save Twyford Down, but they did make the TV news and the newspapers.

The Tory government ignored the Twyford Down protest, and the ones that followed. But public opinion was slowly, almost imperceptibly, turning against Thatcher's great car economy. Saving the British greensward appeals to the ancestral shepherd or dairy farmer hidden inside every pavement-pounding office clerk, and each protest inspired a few more citizens to take action. After Twyford Down, a children's librarian with the wonderful name of Emma Must began to coordinate the efforts of dozens of groups that had joined the cause, and in 1995 the movement received international recognition when Must shared the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize with Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Must's steady advocacy of gentle behavior has served the protesters' image well. Despite a few lapses involving things like bags of urine and buckets of pink paint, the protesters have almost always remained calm and peaceful, or "fluffy," even if their evictors occasionally have not.

Last year's Newbury bypass protest in Berkshire was a turning point for the movement. It was the largest protest to date and the first to attract the endorsement of Friends of the Earth and other mainstream British environmental organizations, and as such it set the stage for the pop-culture embrace of Swampy and the achievement of a national policy transformation: In 1996, after three consecutive cutbacks in annual roads spending, more than 110 projects worth $10 billion were eliminated from the nation's highway-building plans.

"Our defeats are noisy and our victories are quiet," George Monbiot tells me over a ploughman's lunch at a New Age pub in Oxford. A visiting professor in environmental policy at the University of East London, Monbiot is a polite, lank-haired, 34-year-old Englishman who owns a house in Oxford and travels the town's cobblestone streets on a bicycle. His role is as a bridge between Direct Action and those elements of society that are more likely to take a message seriously if it comes from a man with an Oxford degree and three published books on anthropology instead of someone called Swampy who lives down a hole.

Monbiot's best-known work is Poisoned Arrows, a polemic about injustices committed by the Indonesian government against the Papuan people. In the early days of the anti-roads movement he felt little interest in transport issues, but claims he discovered in his own backyard a disenfranchisement as complete as anything he'd seen in the Third World. "Here were these remote, unaccountable bureaucrats with no interest in the land deciding what would happen to it by fiat," he says.

Monbiot's eminently respectable demeanor was one of the factors that helped create the climate for a reconsideration of road-building policy among Britain's political parties. One of the most unlikely converts has been Steven Norris, a former Tory transport minister who is now the head of a trucking-industry trade organization. Shortly before leaving government, Norris canceled a scheme that would have sent a new highway through the forests of Oxley's Wood. Not surprisingly, he rejects the notion that Direct Action exerted any influence on his decision. "The Swampys of this world — the great unwashed, unkempt people — don't cut much ice with my supporters," he says. But Norris, who worked in the used-car business before going into politics, is willing to say that in some ways the protesters were right.

"They deserve credit for having been ahead of the development of an argument that has followed the propositions they put across," he says, speaking — ironically enough — from his car phone. "Is the movement a good thing? On balance, I think it is. It has given space to an argument that's well worth having. Otherwise, who knows whether we'd still be looking at transport policy strictly in terms of attempting to build infrastructure, and the opposition merely saying that the government isn't building enough. That was the dynamic for a long, long time — but not anymore."

Norris also believes Direct Action may have outlived its usefulness. "Ask me if it will be around in five years, and I'll ask you, will the Spice Girls?" he says. "These protesters' silly names were a masterstroke, because they pandered to the tabloids, whose readers have an intellectual age that's about their hat size. But I have to wonder how long it will be before the tabloids and the magazines lose interest. And what happens to the movement when they do?"

As a British Airways jet glides noisily downward along its final approach, I survey the field from a position mandated by Randal J. Hibbert, the Under Sheriff of Cheshire, in the release form I had to sign in order to cover the final mop-up operation. The Men in Black — they are employees of a private security firm called Specialist Rescue International — appear to be doing a line dance near the Flywood camp, where security men have strung a net beneath the girl with her arm cemented inside the metal drum. (Her name, I have learned, is Animal.) In front of me, its entrance shielded by a clump of trees, is Cakehole, the most ambitious tunnel ever built in the path of a construction project. It's a 50-foot-deep labyrinth with vertical climbs, acute angles, and hiding places protected by a series of steel-plated doors.

Arrests are being made with alacrity, and protesters are whisked away for their appearance before a judge. Melanie Jarman, a young woman with a degree in English literature from Surrey and one of the few protesters who refuses to use a loopy nom de guerre like Jelly or Stig the Troll, has been my telephone contact up in the treetops for two months. When I tried to call her cell phone this morning, her number had been deactivated. I reach a protester called Grandpappy, a former bus driver who is really only 28, and he tells me she was arrested and released around the same time he was. But Grandpappy's 29-year-old girlfriend, a former nurse named Denise Bishop, is three months pregnant and is still down Cakehole.

Eager for news, I take the press shuttle bus, thoughtfully provided by the airport authorities, away from the cordoned-off meadow to the heavily guarded runway-extension front gate. Half a mile down the main road, Jeff Gazzard, the unofficial protest spokesman, is sitting on a grassy hill overlooking the contested land, which is surrounded by barbed wire. He greets me with a photocopied bulletin that reports 24 activists remain inside the camp, and he discloses that the protesters getting pulled down from the the tree houses are abandoning their ragged footwear. "The police are issuing these marvelous cotton espadrilles if you don't have anything," he says. "They're much nicer than anything our people already have. They decorate them with runes on their way to the police station."

I have heard that Direct Action protests have attracted broad support from the British upper crust, and Gazzard confirms that a number of lords and ladies have been stopping by in their Land Rovers and Jaguars bearing biscuits and cakes and clotted cream to enliven the dumpster fare the protesters normally subsist on. The wealthy residents of one nearby village have even distributed shoe boxes filled with snacks and toiletries, labeled, in the spirit of all holiday gifts, "Not to be opened until eviction."

After chatting with Gazzard, I take leave of the front and set out for an address in downtown Manchester, not far from the street where an IRA bomb tore a canyon out of the business district a year ago. A cramped office in the cellar of a Quaker meetinghouse has served as the temporary headquarters of the Campaign Against Runway 2, and protesters who have been booked and released are starting to arrive like moths drawn to a light. They've showered and changed into clean clothes, but none of them risks being mistaken for a banker. One young man has threaded bits of wire through his Swampy-style dreadlocks and hung Star Wars collectible discs at the end of each strand. When Grandpappy shows up, he tells me that he chose his own new fashion statement — a towering red Mohawk with green tips — to avoid being recognized by the police. We step out onto the sidewalk, where he can smoke. After he lost his bus-driving job a few years back, he tells me, he decided to turn full-time to the environmental movement. "We've got doctors, psychologists, lawyers," he says. "Some of them have given everything up. Some are politically motivated, but others don't want anything to do with politics. They love the land so much, they're singing about past battles people have fought. It's fantastic."

He expresses concern about Denise, pregnant and out of contact down Cakehole. But he strongly believes in seeing the process through. "The only thing that's certain in Direct Action is that you're going to be arrested," he says. "At the end of it, you will be taken away. You're sitting in a jail cell with a murderer and a rapist. 'What did you do?' they'll ask, and the answer will be, 'I sat up a tree.'"

Someone arrives with the report that the Men in Black have been spotted emerging from Cakehole picking splinters from their hands. This is taken as a sign that the end is near. "It may be a few days or even a week," Grandpappy says, "but if they're getting down Cakehole, it won't be long now."

Surprisingly, the news seems to cheer everyone up, and when someone suggests a brief reconnaissance of the pub across the street, the troops step to. Soon we're sitting around a sidewalk table, drinking lager in the Manchester sunshine. The protest seems weirdly distant. By the time I get up to leave, a second table of activists has filled. Disco Dave has arrived, along with Carl, who nailed his ear to a tree; it turns out all he had to do was remove one of his many earrings and poke the nail through. They're telling war stories and toasting the three activists who remain down Cakehole. As I turn the corner, I hear someone begin to sing.

A week later, it's all over. denise, plagued by morning sickness, comes up first. After ten days underground, Muppet Dave Howarth emerges from Cakehole, leaving Matt "Pixie" Benson below to claim Swampy's title as owner of what the Manchester Guardian breathlessly calls "the all-England protest-tunnel record." Pixie manages to elude the burrowing Men in Black for 17 days before becoming the 211th and final person arrested and removed from the site. Three days later, in London, the new Labour government under Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledges what it calls "a consensus that we must use the car less" and introduces plans to reemphasize mass transit.

As the bulldozers begin to rumble through the Bollin Valley, many of the protesters pack up and set their sights on a proposed resort development in the Lyminge Forest, in Kent, where enterprising local activists are already starting to dig.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote about the west coast of Spain in the July issue.

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